Prominent loyalist facing gun charge must stay in custody

Mark Harbinson
Mark Harbinson

A prominent loyalist detained in England over the discovery of a gun and ammunition must remain in custody, a High Court judge ruled on Thursday.

Mark Harbinson was refused bail amid claims he put together an “escape kit” and avoided arrest for more than a week after the semi-automatic pistol, silencer and balaclavas were seized from his Co Antrim home.

On being told police had pursued the 49-year-old’s car at speeds in excess of 100mph, Mr Justice Treacy held there was a risk he could attempt to flee.

The judge said: “He behaved in a way which is difficult to reconcile with his professed ignorance of the weapon.”

Harbinson, of Sheepwalk Road in Lisburn, denies a charge of possessing a firearm, 28 rounds of ammunition and a silencer with intent to endanger life.

Police discovered the weapon during searches of his home and an outbuilding on December 21 last year.

The disassembled pistol, silencer and bullets were found inside a biscuit tin in the rafters of the barn.

Three black balaclavas were also recovered from a storage area.

A drinking bar or shebeen was said to contain a number of items associated with the Orange Volunteers, including a banner for the proscribed loyalist grouping.

Harbinson, who rose to prominence for speeches made during the Drumcree marching dispute, was not present during the searches.

Later that day armed response police attempted to stop a car belonging to him on country roads between Moira and Lisburn, the court heard.

The pursuit reached speeds of more than 100mph, with the vehicle forcing other motorists off the road, according to the prosecution.

Harbinson later denied being behind the wheel, claiming he had lent his car to a diesel fitter who he declined to identify.

It was alleged that on December 22 he was driven across the border after someone brought him his passport, clothes and up to £5,000 in cash.

From there he travelled to England to stay with friends in Cumbria, the court heard.

Cumbrian police, backed by PSNI officers, launched an operation to arrest him on New Year’s Eve.

Specialist firearm teams and a police negotiator were drafted in as part of the efforts to detain him.

But Harbinson was said to have escaped as officers moved in, before finally being captured 12 miles away.

During questioning back in Belfast, he denied knowing anything about the gun and ammunition.

The former Orangeman claimed he left Northern Ireland out of panic.

He also told police he had moved away from bands and the loyal orders, and rejected any links with the Orange Volunteers.

It emerged at a previous hearing that when questioned about the banner he said it had been displayed at Drumcree in 1996 and he paid £200 for it as a collector’s item.

Harbinson mounted a fresh application for bail based on delays in the case and the results of forensic tests.

Although his fingerprint was found on the biscuit tin, defence counsel argued that none of the DNA samples on the gun belonged to him.

Assertions that the weapon was in working order also came under challenge.

According to the defence it was described in a report as being rusty, in poor condition and with a broken spring.

However, Mr Justice Treacy ruled there was no change of circumstances to merit Harbinson being released from custody.

Denying bail, he said: “In the context of this case it seems to me the applicant is still a flight risk, and a risk of further offences.”